Some Thoughts on Love

I thought I’d post some impromptu musings on love since yesterday was Valentine’s Day. It probably deserves a more thorough treatment, but it might serve as a good jumping-off point.

The ancients had plenty to say on love in all its forms. A couple of Plato’s most beautiful works are on the topic – the “Phaedrus” and the “Symposium.” Aristotle after him expanded on the notion of ‘love among friends’ in Books 8-9 of his Nicomachean Ethics. The Stoics took the insights from these works and combined them with their own psychological theory. Chrysippus himself wrote a whole book on love, but sadly, it didn’t survive. What we do have can be found in Diogenes Laertius Ch. 7.130 and – better yet – Stobaeus Book 2, Ch. 7.5b9… it’s still not that much though. Massimo Pigliucci discusses some of this in How to Be A Stoic Ch. 13. I mention this last resource because the L.A. Stoics went through this book last year.

I’ll summarize some of the relevant info here without getting bogged down with citing specific passages. Keep in mind that summary often requires interpretation; I welcome comments and questions.

  1. The best loving relationship is one in which each partner makes the other better. The overarching goal could be articulated as a kind of moral perfection – a perfection of each other’s moral character. Of course, that means that the two lovers are not perfect to begin with. If that was the case, there would be no work to be done and they would already be enjoying sagacious happiness.
  2. Each person’s love should be directed at the ‘beauty’ of each other’s rational faculty and moral goodness (“inner beauty”). Love should not be transactional, utilitarian, or driven by pleasure. If there is something attractive about someone, the ancients thought that attention should be directed at the moral and rational qualities expressed in the other. Each person is then meant to be a mirror for the other – meant to reflect and bring out these beautiful qualities in the other. This naturally leads us to the first point made (above)… Regarding sex, that of course is fine. But it’s a preferred indifferent and should only be undertaken sensibly and ethically. 
  3. Romantic love is also a preferred indifferent that should be rejected if it compromises our own virtue. That being said, humans are naturally social and we need to engage with other people to express and strengthen our virtues… and vice versa: other people need us. An intimate and loving relationship is a perfect training ground to strengthen our wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice. But again, if a relationship is truly debilitating, an argument can be made to end it… unless… ending a relationship will compromise what virtues we have. 
  4. It’s helpful to remember that Socrates himself was married to a seemingly imperfect woman, Xanthippes. We don’t know much about her, but she didn’t seem to have held him back from being a good and happy man. Socrates even implies that she made him better by helping him practice patience and understanding.
  5. Lastly, here’s a quotation found in Stobaeus (adapted from Arius Didymus): “being worthy of love means the same thing as being worthy of friendship”

Those are some thoughts on the topic. I’m afraid it’s somewhat theoretical, but hopefully you can find something of worth that you can bring to your everyday experiences. Feel free  to continue the correspondence.

– Justin K.


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